September 19, 2019

How Much Are We Projecting Onto Our Pets?

“My friend Laurette has two cats, Zhanna and Pixie. When Laurette pets Zhanna, Pixie interferes by attacking Zhanna. By analogy to humans, it is natural to interpret Pixie’s behaviour as jealousy, but perhaps Pixie is just attempting to assert dominance or establish territoriality. There have been no experimental studies of cats to discriminate between jealousy and alternative hypotheses, but studies of dogs support the claim that they actually do get jealous.

The logic of attributing mental states to nonhuman animals is complicated. We cannot use deductive inference, because there are no general rules that would tell us that when an animal has a specific behaviour, then it is jealous. Probability theory is also useless, because we do not know the likelihood of an animal’s behaviour given that an animal is jealous, which is needed to calculate the probability that an animal is jealous. Instead, we can use a form of reasoning that philosophers call inference to the best explanation. We can legitimately infer that cats or dogs are jealous if that hypothesis provides the best explanation of all the available evidence.

Several factors contribute to determining the best explanation. First, how much does a hypothesis explain? For example, the hypothesis that Pixie is jealous of Zhanna explains why Pixie attacks Zhanna whenever Laurette pets her. Second, are there alternative hypotheses that could explain more? For example, maybe Pixie just wants to be dominant, although that doesn’t explain why Pixie’s attacks on Zhanna are much more common when Zhanna gets her owner’s attention.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"Congratulations, Mr. President. It took an extraordinary effort, but you finally managed to spark a serious global crisis. I know you don’t like to share credit, but don’t worry. The current mess in the Middle East centered around Iran is all..."

"We’re approaching the anniversary of one of the nastiest political battles it has been my misfortune to witness—the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault and his..."

"There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create..."

"He walked through the coffee shop door and scanned the crowd. A familiar smile bloomed as he recognized me, despite how my appearance had changed over the years. I’m bald and bearded now, and heavier. I wear an extra decade on my face, and I’m..."

"The poverty rate in the United States fell to 11.8 percent in 2018, according to data released last week by the Census Bureau — the lowest it’s been since 2001. But this estimate significantly understates the extent of economic deprivation in..."

"Streaming is the future of TV. But for now a big part of the streaming business revolves around old TV shows. Latest case in point: Netflix is paying a lot of money for the rights to show Seinfeld to its 150 million subscribers around the world..."

"On the eve of the second Israeli election of 2019, there is no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric about the potential consequences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election. From the New York Times' editorial column to The Forward’s..."

"Is there a backlash toward the technology industry in the culture? I tend to think so, having written about its various twists and turns most weekdays for the past couple years now. But sometimes an obsession with a beat can lead to myopia, and..."